Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sabbatical Lessons: Thoughts and Stories from our Italian Sabbaticals

~~~Hear Ye Hear Ye~~~

"We are going on a sabbatical this fall" I tell my father on the phone one evening in Fall 2015. Silence. I can only imagine the contortions he is making with his face. He finally replies, "Oh, that's nice. Will you work?"

My dad's response is typical because most people don't know what sabbatical really means or how to reply. Heck, every time I say "sabbatical", I still feel like I'm introducing a new term and need to explain it. We've heard fun frankenwords echoed back to us from friends we told about our upcoming sabbatical. One asked if we were going on a "sabbatican" (a sabbatical at the Vatican?). Another was curious about the financial details of our "sabbitaly" (naturally, a sabbatical in Italy). Still, other friends imagine us idly sipping wine in a Tuscan hilltop castle, while others can't get past the logistics like, "What are you going to do with your house"?

The response from our friends and family ranged from surprise, envy, elation, worry, to the worse response of all: no response. Most of the positive responses came from friends. Most of the worry or no responses came from family. Disbelief was also a common reaction when we announced our second sabbatical. It seemed to be too much to swallow for some folks. One sabbatical is unusual enough, but two? Really, are you out of your minds? That's what I took away even if no one quite said it that way. And the answer is that we just might be out of our minds, but boy has it been swell.

We took our first sabbatical in 2007 - 2008 for 9 months. We intended to travel the world, but the stickiness of Florence and our inclination to nest ruled the day and we spent the 9 months in a modern Renaissance town. We were happy with our choice. When we talked about another sabbatical at that time, it seemed like a ludicrous idea. However, the idea of a second sabbatical, dormant at first, began to stir and make noises reaching a growl a few months before we made the decision to do it again in 2015. During sabbatical two's 7-year gestation period, we realized that our first sabbatical was a high point in our lives and we needed to do it again. Furthermore, the memories and experience of the first sabbatical, rather than dampen, brightened in time, a beacon on the runway for sabbatical two.

I wish I had said all that and more to my father on the phone the evening I called him, but all I said was no, "I'll be taking a break from work."

View of Bergamo: Porta Nuova.View of Bergamo: Citta Alta and clouds.View of Bergamo: Citta Alta and Piazza Vecchia.
Views of Bergamo: Porta Nuova, Citta Alta and Clouds, Piazza Vecchia.

~~~Fallowing the Land~~~

So here we are in 2016, over one year into our second sabbatical, and while sabbatical still sounds odd to say, it's the best word we've got. The terms "vacation", "break", "pause", "absence", "gap year", "time-off" and, gulp, "retirement", are vague, ominous, and moreover, don’t address the essence of what we were going for, which was a renewal. The word sabbatical has its roots in the bible and the idea of leaving the land fallow. The word sabbatical in the modern sense is usually considered a privilege granted, for example, to professors, clergy, and high-level corporate positions. They all share the common theme of an extended absence from normal work, be it teaching, administering a congregation, or running a company. During a sabbatical, professors might write a book, clergy might explore their faith in a different way, or an executive might pursue a hobby precluded by a hectic company schedule. One common trait is that sabbaticals are results-oriented.

While the results-oriented aspect of a sabbatical is appealing to us as well (for example, improving our language skills), the biblical sense of a sabbatical in terms of fallowing land and renewing it for some future purpose also resonated with us strongly. It's easy to follow a linear life pattern: you are born, you grow-up, you go to school, you work, you marry, you have kids, you retire, and then you die. Being born, growing up, and dying are unavoidable. It's the other events in the sequence, particularly the school, work, and retirement episodes that we wondered if we could have some control over. Why stick with a linear pattern? Can we repeat the school, work, and retirement phases in a cyclic, nonlinear way? In general, can we mix the phases of our lives as we want? This idea of mixing up our typical life pattern a bit has been a dominant theme and reason for our sabbaticals.

The concept of a renewal of land has a deeper and darker meaning if you choose to think about it in the context of corporate life. Assuming that your land is your body and mind, then working for a corporation is like renting your land out to a big farming operation. We do it because we need to pay the bills. But in time, your land might not be so good for growing the same crop year after year. And if the renter doesn't want to rent your spent land anymore, what happens? They find fresher ground. Why not renew your own land while you can?

~~~Birth of a sabbatical~~~

A pivotal event for our first sabbatical was an unassuming after-work seminar in 2005 on 401(k) plans. We were tired after one of our usual tech-company workdays, but the free refreshments lured us. We also went because while we had 401(k) plans, we had no idea how to manage them, and figured it wouldn't hurt to learn. The two of us and six other brave souls listened to the advisor's hour-long presentation. While we sipped refreshments after the presentation, we talked with the advisor and decided to follow up with him. Eventually, we started a working relationship with the advisor: that is, he would manage our savings. It was a slow process turning over our money and trust.

Our first few meetings with the advisor were nothing at all what we had expected. Instead of talking about numbers, we talked a lot about dreams and plans for the future. During those first few meetings we defined different goals. One of those goals was to take a sabbatical.

Those first meetings with the financial advisor were the first time we sat down as a couple and talked about our goals. Why would it take a financial advisor to do that you might wonder? I don't know, but it just wasn't something we had ever talked about. Up that point in our lives, we were concerned with working and saving money. It took the financial advisor to help us understand the idea of balancing current happiness with future well-being. Out of the search for balance, "sabbatical" as a goal was born. The exact timing wasn't precise, but it was a goal, and it had some money going to fund it.

Our advisor was a little surprised when just two years later, in 2007, we told him that we were actually going to go through with that sabbatical plan. To be honest, we were a little surprised too. We had just finished a house remodel and were finding our financial balance again when suddenly one of us was laid-off. The corporation didn't want to rent the land anymore I guess. They called it something innocuous like reduction in work force, but that didn't help lessen the shock. However, what seemed like a negative turn of events soon turned positive when we decided this opened up the door for a sabbatical.

We knew we wanted to spend the sabbatical in Italy, and we needed to able to stay there legally past the 90 days allowed for tourists. We considered citizenship, which we knew might be an option for us, but at the time it was easier to get visas. So, on a warm summer morning in 2007 we found ourselves standing outside the Italian consulate in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood, waiting in line to submit our application for visas for the first sabbatical.

It's 9:30 am and the line is already long enough to spill out of the small waiting room and on to the sidewalk of Webster Street, a street that when followed north takes you down to the San Francisco Bay. A tall, young priest in front of us fills out his visa application. I think about how we sweated over the visa questions for days, and yet how relaxed he is filling out the application last minute. This strapping man of God, well-coiffed and dressed in unexpectedly snappy black clerical clothing, tells us that he was hoping to go to the Vatican and that he has applied for a visa several times with no success. Ah, I see.

Suddenly there is shouting from inside. We all crane our necks to see what is going on. Seconds later a man runs out of the waiting room chased by a consulate employee who yells after him: "You'll never get a fucking visa!" Oh, what are we in for today?

Despite the drama, all went well that day. As usual, with anything that involves paperwork and Italy, we didn't get it right the first time, and we had to go home and produce some missing documents.
I wonder to this day if the young priest ever made it to see the pope.

By the end of Summer 2007, visas in hand, we were ready to go. We didn't have clue then that we'd get citizenship in 2010, let alone go for a second sabbatical in 2015. But to think that it all started in a seminar on 401(k) plans still amazes us.

Image of Bergamo: Cannoniera di San Michele.Image of Bergamo: Venetian walls and fog.Image of Bergamo: View west from Porta San Giacomo.
Views of Bergamo: Cannoniera di San Michele, Venetian walls and fog, View northeast from Porta San Giacomo.


We are smack dab in the middle of sabbatical two and it's a good time to talk a little about our sabbatical experience. There are some aspects which were expected, like experiencing lack-of-work fear, more specifically, that we'll never find work again. There are other aspects, which we didn't expect, such as the depth of our relationships and how invested we've become in our lives here, particularly in our second sabbatical.

The old bugaboo of finding work
Being out of work itself isn't that scary, rather, it's the idea that we may not be able to find work again that's scary. It's a little nagging fear of not being able to find a job again, being off your game, out of the loop. We had the same feeling back in 2008 as well, so it's not a new feeling. What keeps us in good spirits is that after our first sabbatical, when we were ready, we found jobs and integrated back into work life without too much trouble.

Sabbatical one lasted 9 months and sabbatical two has now reached 15 months with no exact end in sight. We can say that we do miss being part of the technology world, a project, an effort, a product, etc. The newness of our surroundings, language immersion, and new people are what we are becoming part of. But at around 12 months, we started to have a slight yearning to be involved in something else. Could that be, gulp, work? The feeling conflicted us. Was it hopeless? Can we ever separate ourselves from work?

We are American ambassadors
When we are in the US, people rarely ask us questions about America. However, here in Italy, we are often called on to explain America in all aspects, big and small, good and bad. For example, we are asked where certain states are located, to comment on current news, whether everyone in America has a gun, or how the electoral college works. This means that we have to keep reasonably informed about current events in the USA, whether we want to or not. We try to talk about facts and events as if we were ambassadors of the US, without ranting or spouting our views too much.

Given their affinity for America, we also end up talking with a lot of Italians about their American vacations, where they have gone and where they would like to go. And, we are called on to give advice for future vacations. It's interesting to hear these travel stories and plans because it gives us new perspectives on parts of America that maybe we've seen or thought we knew. New York, San Francisco, and Miami are to Italian visitors to America as Rome, Venice, and Florence are to American visitors to Italy. And then there are the Italians who work in amazing trips to see all the key national parks, to drive Route 66, or to explore parts of the deep south, places we have yet to see ourselves.

We are mini, everyday ambassadors of the United States. Think about it. Most Italians don't get to spend very much in-the-flesh time with Americans. You may ask why that is important. It's important because America matters to Italians. We can't underestimate how powerful and pervasive American culture and actions are in Italy. Yes, sometimes America is the object of deserved ridicule here, but much more often, it's admired and respected. The average US citizen is blind to the impact that America has abroad. And therein lies a conundrum for us. How do we represent an America that we ourselves only know a small slice of? What do we say to someone in Italy when we don't know the answer to their question? Or, how do we speak to some of the darker aspects of America's power, culture, and pervasiveness?

Let there be English language
We used to get annoyed when Italians spoke English to us in Italy. It felt like we had failed in our ability to speak Italian, that our Italian wasn't good enough. There are a couple of reasons why this happens. First, their English may be better than our Italian, and in the interest of efficient communication, we communicate in the strongest common language. Second, we find that Italians are eager to speak English, even if they only know a few words. Many Italians want to learn, and want the opportunity to speak English. Italians learn English in school but don't often have a chance to practice it. Furthermore, from our unscientific polling: Italians like the American accent much better than the British accent. American accent equals cool. British accent equals stuffy.

Finally, there is what I would call the over-eager, tourist-friendly service provider phenomenon. Typically, it's a waiter who wants to make you feel as comfortable as possible and speaks in English no matter what. He has sized us up as English speakers, and that's what we are served. What the waiter doesn't know is that while Debbie from Dubuque or Takashi from Tokyo may feel at home with that approach, he loses points with us. Alas, a solution is always at hand. When we want to escape English for sure, we head for the hills. We've been known to talk for hours to a sweet old grandmother in the middle of nowhere.

The rich tapestry of relationships
In this, our second sabbatical, we've fallen into, or better yet, been woven into, a rich tapestry of people and place, that we like to call the Pignolo Tapestry. Via Pignolo is a historic and charming street-cum-neighborhood in Bergamo. Via San Tomaso and via Pelabrocco join via Pignolo at Fontana del Delfino to form our Italian stage set. The area around the fountain is barely a widening of the road, much less than a typical residential road in America. But what this meeting of roads lacks in size, it makes up for in richness in personalities, culture, history, and architecture.

We spend a good part of a typical day in and around via Pignolo: we chat with friends in front of the Fontana del Delfino, we grab a coffee at Caffè Papavero which looks on to the fountain, we buy stamps and a newspaper at the tabaccheria across from Papavero, and some sugar or cream at the bottega a 20 steps further down Pignolo. Sometimes we step into the impressive Chiesa parrocchiale di Sant’Alessandro della Croce for a few moments to relish the solemn and elegant interior.

The key to the magic of this Pignolo Tapestry, and of Bergamo in general, are our relationships here. We are awed and humbled by the kindness we've been shown. We noticed the friendliness of the people in Bergamo right away. In our first month, we already had a pretty good group of friends and acquaintances.

One day in our first week of arriving, we are standing in front of the Fontana del Delfino and an elegant older woman walks down the street, stops, and addresses us in English with a German accent: "You aren't from here, you smile too much." We pause for a moment, and then all three of us begin laughing. And that is our introduction to Lola, a German born Bergamasca transplant, and her dry sense of humor. We would we go on to spend much time speaking with Lola over coffee at Papavero, and lunches and dinners at her house nearby. That is just one small example of an immediate and enduring relationship that formed.

Our encounter with Lola and many others in Bergamo raises an interesting perception that the Bergamaschi have of themselves: that they are not as open nor as welcoming as southern Italians, rarely smile, and care too much about money. As we wrote about in the piece Perché Bergamo, we have not found that to be the case. Of course, there are those folks who are not reachable for various reasons; no matter how many times you try, they look straight ahead and ignore you. Nevertheless, we've found that after a smile and buongiorno or two, the ice breaks and the people of Bergamo open up.

Everyday scenes of Bergamo: A happy bride on Fontana del delfino.Everyday scenes of Bergamo: Papavero-style wedding.Everyday scenes of Bergamo: Fontana della Fiera, Piazza Dante.Everyday scenes of Bergamo: Our palazzo cortile.
Everyday scenes of Bergamo: A happy bride on Fontana del Delfino, a Papavero-style wedding, Fontana della Fiera, Piazza Dante, the cortile of our palazzo.

Bar Papavero and the sisters
Before leaving for our second sabbatical, we read John Hooper's book, The Italians (2015), an interesting look at Italian culture. Hooper, a British foreign correspondent, raises many interesting points about the bel paese, but one point in particular stood out in our minds: your regular or not so regular attendance at your local café. Hooper suggests that cafés are rather possessive of their patrons and if you don't show up time to time, they may think you are cheating on them. We are coffee people and visiting cafés is an important part of our exploration, so Hooper has us a bit worried.

Fortunately, the café gods smiled on us and we found, just steps from our house, the inimitable Caffè Papavero. The café is owned by the gregarious and curious, Sheghi. Her name, Sheghi short for Shaghayegh, in Farsi means poppy, or papavero in Italian. Her bar is frequented by an eclectic mix of people: locals who have lived on via Pignolo for all or most of their lives, university students, teachers, artists, professionals, counts and countesses, and others, like us, who have landed here for various motives and indeterminable duration. Everyone is welcome at Papavero, the vibe is always open and interesting. From the first moment in November 2015 when we walked in and fumbled a simple coffee to now, we always feel welcome and often find ourselves included in something that is brewing: a hike, a weekend getaway, a dinner, or a concert. It's in this café that our good fortune is rooted. You could say that Sheghi and her Bar Papavero are at the center of our Pignolo tapestry.

The warp and weft of this tapestry would be a long list of characters who frequent her café. The "sisters" are one example. From our first days in Bergamo, they have been part of daily experience. We meet them in the stairwell and the cortile of our palazzo, in the street, and at Bar Papavero. The sisters are easy to talk with and are patient with our language mistakes. They offer information and advice freely; we've learned a lot from these guardian angels. If there is anything we need to know, they are the ones to ask.

Two of the sisters live in our palazzo, two floors down. A third sister lives across the street. A fourth sister lives just outside of Bergamo, but is often around hanging out with her sisters. There is a fifth sister that lives in Città Alta, who we haven't me yet, though we feel we have because we know her daughter well. There is no escaping the sisters.

I remember the first time we met one of the sisters, Maria, a tiny, blonde former "sister", in the Catholic sense. We knocked on her door to pick up a key to our mailbox. (Like we said, if you need something in this palazzo, ask the sisters). While standing in the foyer, Maria tells us about her mother who had lived there too. As she talks, she steps from the foyer into the small living room, beckoning us in. She picks up a picture of her mother from the table, kisses it, and shows it to us. Her mother was 97 when she passed away. Her sister Lidia enters with our mailbox key. We talk for a few moments, and there it was. In the space of just a few minutes, we felt more included in the lives of our new neighbors than we could have imagined.

Communication across cultures
As we noted above, the sabbatical has opened up many new relationships for us. It has also changed our existing relationships with friends and family back in the US. Relationships ship or evolve for a myriad of reasons. However, a move outside a culture - from America to Italy as in our case - poses some particular challenges.

One such challenge is physical. In our case, a six to nine-hour time zone difference means that communication patterns change. We are on different rhythms. Before, we had our habitual times when we would reach out to parents, siblings, or friends. We are now out of sync. Our evenings are their mornings, and by their lunch time, we are in bed. It's not uncommon that we are messaging friends first thing in the morning here in Italy as they are just going to bed.

Another challenge is experiential. We have less day-to-day experience in common to share. We are naturally more Italian and European-focused. Our everyday stories aren't as relevant to folks in Seattle, and vice-versa. To the folks back home, we are, in a polite sense, the indifferent expats who left the country, and in a less polite sense, perhaps the two dunderhead expats who don't know what the heck is going on back in the States because we don't live there.

Also with regard to communication, there are folks who have always been key to facilitating relationships within our circles of friends and families back home (whom we can call mavens), and who have kept in close contact. Others have dropped back, waiting for us to return. It's a two-way street because we are equally responsible for any perceived or actual lack of communication.

~~~A rose by any other name ~~~

What a sabbatical should or could be is hard to know ahead of time, especially to choose how long, where, and how it happens. No one is an expert at taking a sabbatical, and it in fact runs counter to many of the cultural ideals that we grew up with in America. Taking a sabbatical is about taking a chance, leaving what you know behind, embracing something different.

When we chose to go on sabbatical, we opened a small riff with our friends and family. We stepped outside our normal lives to take a different path. Some may feel like you are rejecting them or your local or national culture. Others may cheer you on and continue communicating across the riff. Some may even step across to join you.

If you ask the world for permission to take the sabbatical, it won't happen. If you wait for everyone around you to be okay so you can leave without feeling obligations, it won't happen. If you wait for some key milestone to arrive - for example, when you are sixty, or when you work through all your health problems - you might be waiting unnecessarily.

Also, it is wrong to assume that taking a sabbatical requires traveling great distances. It may not require any travel at all. It's about taking the time, changing your perspective not necessarily about where you go. That said, a physical break from your normal surroundings is a powerful way to inspire new ideas and define the sabbatical in a more precise way than what came before it.

At a certain point, in this, our second sabbatical, I started to be bothered by something I perceived as "sabbatical fatigue". That is, it seemed that our friends and families had lost interest in what were doing, they were no longer asking as many questions as I thought they would. Then it dawned on me: our 'sabbatical adventure' had transitioned into the two of us simply living somewhere else, albeit without work. It wasn't fatigue, but rather normalization to our new life. Maybe they had sensed something before we had. And with that insight, the question became: "Is there a precise time when we pass out of sabbatical and into just life abroad, regardless of whether we work?" Connecting the concept of sabbatical with the absence of work suddenly seemed a little problematic. Evoking "sabbatical" to describe our choices and situation now smacks, admittedly, of slight conceit. Though, we can't deny its power to stir romantic and magical images for ourselves and for our listeners. We maintain that those images are more powerfully evoked with "sabbatical" than if we said "we are going to live in Italy for a while," even if the outcome is about the same. We're sticking with the romance and magic for now, because to us it still feels that way.

So, "sabbatical" is still a word we use to describe what we are doing, at least until the next inflection point in our journey. When we return to America, will we resume our pre-sabbatical lives? Is that even possible after our experiences here? Or, will we stay in Italy and finally make a proper transition from sabbatical to living and working here? Whatever the case, I can't wait for the phone call with Dad.

Image of Bergamo: Viale della Mura.View from the Campanone Biblioteca Civica "Angelo Mai".Via Pelabrocco.
Images of Bergamo: Viale della Mura, View from the Campanone Biblioteca Civica "Angelo Mai", Via Pelabrocco.

Interior of Sant'Alessandro della Croce.
Interior of Sant'Alessandro della Croce.

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